UW Today

This is an archived article.

November 16, 2009

110 local infants needed for autism brain imaging study

Images of the growing brain at the cellular level may help researchers understand what goes wrong with brain development in infants who later develop an autism spectrum disorder and better identify early risk factors for autism. That’s why University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital researchers are looking for 110 6-month-old infants in the Puget Sound area to participate in a new study.

During the next 18 months the researchers are looking for 75 infants who are at high risk for autism. These 6-month-old infants must have an older sibling who has been diagnosed with autism. The study also needs a control group of 35 infants of the same age who have no family history of autism.

Participants in the study will have their brains imaged at night when they are asleep at 6, 12 and 24 months of age and then will be evaluated for the disorder at age 3.

“Something happens between 12 and 18 months of age to the brains of infants who go on to develop autism at the time when their brain is getting hardwired for language and social development,” said Dr. Stephen Dager, acting director of the UW Autism Center and a professor of radiology. “At least part of what causes autism may be problems with how the brain wires itself and how brain tissue grows. We are looking at very subtle differences at 12 months of age and trying to come up with a way to identify children at particularly high risk for autism.”

The study will employ a three-dimensional imaging technique that enables researchers to study the building blocks of neural development and measure neurochemicals. It also will allow them to look for mitochondrial abnormalities. Mitochondria are tiny structures that help power cells.

Payment for participation in the study is $75 for each of the three brain scans, plus copies of the brain images and a behavioral assessment from the UW Autism Center. The imaging will be conducted at Children’s Hospital.

“This study will help us to better understand and may allow earlier diagnosis,” said Dager. “Right now we can diagnose it between 24 to 36 months at special centers. Earlier diagnosis will allow for earlier treatment.”

The research is being funded by federal stimulus money through the National Institutes of Health. It will extend work currently being conducted as part of a larger Infant Brain Imaging Study at the UW as well as at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; the University of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Children’s Hospital; Washington University, and the Montreal Neurological Institute

Parents who are interested in enrolling their child in the study or who have questions about the research should contact Vanessa Rivera at 206-543-2125, 800-994-9701 or riverav@u.washington.edu.

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For more information, contact Dager at 206-616-1558or srd@u.washington.edu.